“We were hungry to get back in the studio,” says Jimmy Buffett, who just put out his first album in seven years, Life on the Flip Side, which aims to recapture some of the storytelling verve and loose rootsiness of his early work. In late spring, Buffett was riding out isolation in “a little trailer in Malibu,” and in the mood to look back at his long career and reflect on the lessons learned on his path from struggling songwriter to king of the Parrot Heads and ruler of a business empire. (To hear the interview on the latest episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, press play below or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.)
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
When I went to Nashville to seek my fortune and fame in 1969, I bought a Martin D-28 [guitar] and a D-18 12-string. And I hocked everything I had for that, because “this was it!” I was going to Nashville, and I had to take the chance. And when I got there, my first wife and I spent our first honeymoon night at the Holiday Inn in Nashville on West End — and both guitars were stolen out of my car that night. Talk about indulgent — it took me years to pay it off because I had no insurance or anything, and I had to go get another guitar.
There’s an actual group of fans known as Church of Buffett, Orthodox, who love your first few albums, and militantly reject everything else. What do you make of it?
I’m glad you asked that, because I love it! I love the Church of Buffett! I mean, I don’t want them to get as big as Martin Luther. I went back to listen to those first three albums, and I kind of understand. All I ever tried to do was make a record that a fan could add to their collection. Well, the Church of Buffett didn’t think they needed to add anything after [1977’s] Changes in Latitudes [laughs]! I’m gonna bet you a couple of them buy [my new album] Life on the Flip Side because it’s gonna remind them of those first three albums.
You once talked about cutting back on partying, after a show where you felt like a hangover compromised your performance. What was that revelation like for you?
They call it “take the money and run” shows, where you may not feel your best and the audience won’t know it, because they’re so happy to be there. But I feel terrible when those things happen. I never wanted to do another [show like that]. And it scared me to death. You think you’re bulletproof. You’re in rock & roll. Drugs or sex — everything was around. But I didn’t want to make my family ashamed of me. And that was a very strong deterrent; it helped me make that change in my life at that time.
After that, you went into therapy. What was the biggest thing you learned there?
“Your life is not a performance. The performance is part of your life.” Ding, ding. Yeah, that rang a bell.
You’re a Bob Dylan fan — and he’s a big fan of yours. How did you react when he covered “A Pirate Looks at 40” back in 1982?
I was thrilled about it. [Around that time], I was in St. Barts, and I heard this voice say, “Hey, Jimmy, that’s a nice-looking pair of shoes.” And it was Bob Dylan! And he invited me out on his boat, and we sat there and got stoned all day long. I’m thinking, “Man, we have a bond here.” A few years later, I was in Paris, and Dylan was playing with [Tom Petty]. I went backstage. Dylan was sitting there. I said, “Bob, how you doin’?” He went, “Ehhh.” He never said a word! I ate my meal and said, “Well, have a good show. See you later.” That was it. I haven’t seen him since!
I hear “Margaritaville” as a pretty melancholy song — yet at the same time you’ve built an entire hedonistic brand around it. How do you see that paradox?
I never thought about that when I wrote it. I started it in Austin, Texas, in a bar with a friend of mine who was about to put me on a plane to go back to Key West. And I finished it in Key West and I played it in the bar and people liked it. But you know, Ry Cooder said once, you never know what the public’s going to buy. And you never do. When we did the Broadway musical, they did it as a melancholy song. And, yeah, there’s a little melancholy. But, you know, the theme of Mardi Gras is Folly chasing Death — you got to have fun to keep the devil away.
You’re a Democrat, but some of your fans don’t seem to know that. What did you make of the backlash when you played a Democratic benefit in 2018?
I was surprised they were surprised! It’s no secret! There’s this thing called the internet; they could’ve looked it up. I know I have a lot of Republican fans, and I like the idea of music as the oasis where people can get together. Politics shouldn’t decide who you listen to.
On your new album, you sing, “Live like it’s your last day.” Is that good advice or terrible advice?
When you’ve had a couple of close calls — an airplane crash, a stage dive — you think you’re probably living on borrowed time. So I kind of do choose to live like it’s my last day. You never know. At 73, you’re losing a lot of friends, and it’s a constant progression towards … y’know, what’s there. Everybody goes at some point.
When was the last time you got to be out on a boat for a couple days or be on a beach for a few days?
Like, yesterday! I went paddle-boatin’ yesterday. And I’m going now! I see a nice little wave out there. When we finish this interview, I’m gonna go surfing.
And how would you like to be remembered?
“He had a good time and made a lot of people happy” would be good.
Download and subscribe to our weekly podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on iTunes or Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts), and check out two years’ worth of episodes in the archive, including in-depth, career-spanning interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Halsey, Neil Young, the National, Questlove, Julian Casablancas, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Marr, Scott Weiland, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, Phil Collins, Alicia Keys, Stephen Malkmus, Sebastian Bach, Tom Petty, Kelly Clarkson, Pete Townshend, Bob Seger, the Zombies, Gary Clark Jr., and many more — plus dozens of episodes featuring genre-spanning discussions, debates, and explainers with Rolling Stone’s critics and reporters. Tune in every Friday at 1 p.m. ET to hear Rolling Stone Music Now broadcast live from SiriusXM’s studios on Volume, channel 106.